Friday, February 27, 2009

Not Done Yet: Penguins GM Shero Likely Has More Up His Sleeve

Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero dealt one of his team's more marketable players Thursday afternoon, flipping fourth-year defenseman Ryan Whitney to Anaheim for 29-year-old winger Chris Kunitz and tantalizing junior prospect Eric Tangradi.

The fact that the move was made was no shock for longtime Penguins followers. With Sergei Gonchar finally back in action after rehabbing a dislocated shoulder, Kris Letang gradually getting more ice time and increased responsibility, and Alex Goligoski in reserve at the AHL level eagerly anticipating his eventual recall to Pittsburgh, Whitney became the offensive-minded blueliner most likely to be dealt.

Whitney's departure to the Ducks closed his unsavory final act as a Penguin. After overcoming a subpar season to blossom during a run to the Stanley Cup Final, Whitney underwent major reconstructive surgery on his left foot to correct a chronic alignment issue.

Goligoski took what would have been Whitney's spot on the power play and showed enough skill to get Pens fans thinking about the possibility of dealing Whitney in order to bolster the team's forward depth. By the time Whitney returned to the active roster in late December, he was already on the way out in the minds of many.

Whitney's quality of play since then was below average, dragged down by poor decision-making and spotty coverage in his own zone. Since his top form, as displayed in the 2006-07 season, seemed more distant by the day, Shero took advantage of the widespread perception that Whitney's best is yet to come by tending to a distinct need via the trade market.

But while Whitney may very well develop into a consistent Norris Trophy candidate with Anaheim, Shero made the smart move by discarding of a luxury in order to gain a necessity. Kunitz infuses toughness, physicality, speed and an above-average scoring touch into the Penguins' lineup, all of which are qualities in short supply this season for the Flightless Fowl.

Starting with Friday's tilt in Chicago, Kunitz immediately pushes Pascal Dupuis down to the third line where his combination of quick feet and sluggish hands belongs. Whether he teams with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin (smart money has him with No. 87), Kunitz will play the net-crashing, space-generating role that has been empty since Ryan Malone caught a plane to Tampa.

Oh, by the way, Kunitz' 16 goals and 19 assists rank him fourth on the Penguins, two points up on Miroslav Satan and three ahead of Jordan Staal.

Speaking of Staal - as I make the smooth segue - the 20-year-old third-line center is under contract long-term just like Whitney was, making him a reasonably priced trading piece at $4 million a year for the next four seasons. For whatever reason, Staal hasn't come close to repeating his rookie year goal total of 29 in the nearly two full seasons since.

But even though Staal has yet to demonstrate that he can be counted on for a consistent effort most nights, he is at such an early stage in his development that it's impossible to write off his offensive potential. The conundrum for Shero is that Staal's contributions thus far don't justify the mid-level salary he will be paid for the next four seasons.

Equally as pressing on Shero's mind is that the Penguins, even with the gritty Kunitz on the roster, are still an elite finisher away from being a complete team. At this stage of the club's development, with a Final appearance already in the rearview, the goal can only be the Cup, not the stockpiling of young talent.

I believe Shero understands this. If he didn't, he wouldn't have taken the plunge at last year's trading deadline by adding Marian Hossa to Crosby's wing, a move that temporarily nudged the Penguins into the NHL's most exclusive club: Cup contenders.

Other factors play into the likelihood of additional trades, such as the importance of making the postseason and the guaranteed cash flow that results from it, as well as how highly other teams regard Staal, Shero's most valuable (yet attainable) bargaining chip.

While the players still have a quarter of the season left to decide their fate, Shero and other GMs like him are down to their final week to make a meaningful change.

With a third consecutive playoff berth in the balance, I'd bet on Shero to try all he can to tip the scale in the Penguins' favor.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Polish Prodigy Podcast #13

The Pens take two out of three since the last podcast, and as Meat Loaf tells us, that "ain't bad." Too bad he doesn't lay out a detailed map to the NHL postseason as well. For NHL talk and the latest Pirates news from spring training in Bradenton, this is your place to be.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Polish Prodigy Podcast #12

Michel Therrien is long gone, Dan Bylsma says hello, and Nate McLouth gets locked up (figuratively speaking, of course). To hear me ramble on about these three people and many more related topics, click the post's title above or follow the instructions below.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Islanders 3, Penguins 2 (SO): Head Coach Dan Bylsma Liveblog

With the Pittsburgh Penguins playing their first game under interim head coach Dan Bylsma (pictured, with the spectacles), I couldn’t resist liveblogging the heck out of a Presidents Day afternoon tilt against the NHL-worst New York Islanders.

2:00 p.m. – CJ Papa welcomes the viewers on MSG+ to Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum for the Islanders’ traditional Pres Day matinee. I was expecting to have the FSN Pittsburgh feed, but it’ll be interesting to get the opposition point-of-view.

2:02 – Up to the broadcast booth, where Howie Rose (play-by-play) and Billy Jaffe (color) take the reins. They mention that Bylsma was an assistant coach on Long Island a couple of years ago and show a brief interview with the Pens’ new head man. He mentions that he wants the players to play aggressively without installing a whole new system at this point in the season. Faceoff coming up!

2:07 – Papa shows highlights of the Penguins’ three hat tricks against the Isles this season. It’ll be Joey McDonald against Marc-Andre Fleury in the goaltending match-up. The puck is dropped at center ice and we’re under way.

2:10 – Bylsma is shown on the bench holding a “cheat sheet” of sorts. Hey, give him a break, he’s only had this job for 18 hours.

2:13 – New York’s Bruno Gervais enters the Pens’ zone late and whips a shot thru traffic that gets a piece of Fleury and tinks off the goalpost. Good break for Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby then steals a puck behind the Isles’ goal and throws it in front for Ruslan Fedotenko, who can’t get the one-timer on goal. Chances for both sides in the opening five minutes.

2:17 – Sergei Gonchar receives a crossrink feed from Pascal Dupuis and gets his first shot of the game on goal, right into the belly pad of McDonald. Promising sight for Penguins fans to see Sarge jump up into the play smoothly. Jordan Staal tries to stuff a puck by McDonald on the right side but is denied and we head for the “under 14:00” media timeout.

2:21 – Miroslav Satan’s half-speed slapshot is gloved head-high by McDonald. Satan starts the game on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Petr Sykora. This actually means something now that Michel Therrien has been shown the door. He shuffled lines constantly, if you’re not a Pens follower.

2:23 – Sean Bergenheim tries a wraparound on Fleury, who slides to his left and keeps it out despite multiple Isles in his kitchen.

2:25 – A two-on-one led by Tyler Kennedy develops into a three-on-one with Staal trailing. He gets a feed in the low slot with an open net, but his bid for the first goal hits a leg and deflects into the corner. Wow, the Pens really needed that one to go in and erase the memory of Saturday’s loss at Toronto.

2:27 – Defensman Chris Campoli drives the net and redirects a Bergenheim pass into the goal with his skate. It doesn’t look to have been a kicking motion, but the play is under review. Referee Chris Lee addresses the crowd and calls it “a good goal.” I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s 1-0 New York at 11:34 of the first.

2:31 – Jaffe called the Penguins “this Pitt team.” I wasn’t aware this was the University of Pittsburgh’s hockey team playing today on the Island. Sorry, it’s a pet peeve of mine when I hear out of town broadcasters say “Pitt” when they mean Pittsburgh. No one in the ‘Burgh says “Pitt” unless they’re talking about the college.

2:34 – New York’s Tim Jackman is called for holding Kris Letang with his free hand. Good call and the Pens hit the power play for the first time. Oh God, they’ve failed on nine in a row, says Howie Rose.

2:27 – Make it 10 straight power plays without a goal. Just a couple of decent chances generated.

2:40 – That’s why he’s the NHL’s leading scorer! Malkin takes a neutral-zone turnover up the left wing, drags the puck to the middle and unleashes a sick wrister that flies by McDonald to tie the game. It’s Geno’s 25th of the season and it comes unassisted at 18:05.

2:43 – Fleury corrals a rebound of a Richard Park (former Penguin) shot in the final minute. Sharp save there.

2:45 – Jaffe says there is “no question” that Pens GM Ray Shero wants Colby Armstrong back. Ugh. Nice to hear opposition broadcasters talking like they have access to this information. Just call the game and enjoy your last-place team. Rant over. First period over: New York 1, Pittsburgh 1.

3:02 – We are shown a stat that says the last time the Islanders surrendered three hat tricks in a season to the Penguins was 1992, the last Stanley Cup season. I can dream, can’t I? That team was in danger of missing the playoffs in February as well, so don’t laugh too hard.

3:06 – Staal one-times a Kennedy pass that McDonald kicks out nicely. That was probably his best save of the game thus far.

3:08 – Malkin leads a three-on-two rush and just misses setting up Dupuis on the doorstep. The crowd hushed as Geno pushed the puck up ice in open space. Just after that, NY’s Jeff Tambellini gets a quick backhander away that sails wide of the right post. TV timeout.

3:15 – Crosby gets free behind the Isles’ goal and sweeps a shot right on that McDonald smothers. First real scoring chance of the period for the Pens as we’ve hit a lull. No surprise during a midafternoon game, though.

3:19 – Pittsburgh’s Bill Thomas has a two-on-one and tries a pass that’s broken up. He’s better off shooting there. New York’s Kyle Okposo then leads a three-on-one and he does the exact same thing. Those young players, or any players for that matter, should try to keep it simple and at least guarantee a shot on goal.

3:21 – Crosby sets up Dupuis streaking down the left side. His hard wrister hits the outside of the left post, as he tried to go short side. Marian Hossa buries that. Just sayin.’

3:25 – Andy Hilbert gets open for a wrist shot from center point that bounces off of Fleury and into the crease. Frans Nielsen is right there to swat it in on his second attempt to push the Islanders back in front 2-1. It’s Nielsen’s third goal of the year and it comes at 13:26.

3:29 – Fleury fights off a Bill Guerin curl-and-drag wrister from in tight, then Sykora finds Satan for a shot that goes just wide at the other end of the rink. Penalty on the way against the Islanders, which will set up the second Pittsburgh man advantage of the game.

3:32 – This power play does not expire harmlessly! Crosby takes the puck from the right side, closes in and shovels a backhand pass to a charging Ryan Whitney, who buries it into the left side of the cage. 2-2 game on Whitney’s second of the season from Crosby and Gonchar at 17:07. It’s Sarge’s first point of the season in his second game back from a shoulder separation that had kept him inactive since late September.

3:35 – Okposo turns around Brooks Orpik with his free hand and is penalized for it. Pens hop right back on the power play, and Sykora is quickly denied by McDonald off a Gonchar rebound. Suddenly the power play looks confident, and Gonchar is the obvious catalyst from the point. Just like old times.

3:37 – Another quick flurry of Pittsburgh shots at the end of the period leads to a big scrum after the whistle. Malkin threw a couple of punches and will be going to the box along with New York’s Campoli. Malkin actually received a double minor for roughing, and I’ve got to say it’s well deserved. The Islanders will have an abbreviated power play less than a minute into the third period. For now, though, it’s Pittsburgh 2, New York 2 after two.

3:55 – A one-minute, 34-second power play is under way for the home team as the third period commences.

3:58 – Staal steals a Mike Comrie pass shorthanded and flops a 90-foot shot to the Isles’ goal. McDonald stops it, but doesn’t know where it is and is forced to hold for a whistle. That’ll finish the power play as we return to five-on-five play. The time to attack is now for the Penguins.

4:01 – Jon Sim of New York beats the Pens to a loose puck low in the Pittsburgh zone and rips a blast on goal that Fleury kicks to the corner. Key save there.

4:04 – Kennedy curls out of the left corner and sends a wrister on goal with Staal hunting the rebound. There is no rebound as McDonald looks sharp in grabbing it cleanly.

4:09 – Staal blocks Okposo’s shot attempts twice in the same shift, then steals it from him and headmans the puck. Malkin comes on the ice and turns on the speed, cuts to his right and then tries to toss a pass into the crease. McDonald gets a piece of it as Thomas crashed the net and nothing comes out of it.

4:13 – NY’s Blake Comeau makes an appearance in this afternoon’s drama, chopping a shot from five feet away that Fleury denies and covers for the stoppage in play.

4:19 – Butch Goring delivers a report while sitting in a seat in the lower bowl of Nassau. The former Islanders’ player and coach has good points, but he doesn’t look too professional while on camera. Stand up, Butch!

4:21 – Coach Bylsma puts Crosby and Malkin together on a line, accompanied by Fedetenko. They cycle the puck nicely, put the possession time ends with a Hal Gill wrister that McDonald pins to his chest. We’ve reached the final media timeout as we are inside six minutes remaining in regulation time.

4:25 – New York’s Mark Streit leads a transition rush, pulls up in the high slot and finds Hilbert down low. The former Penguin tries to guide it into the right side of the goal, but Fleury slides over for an important save near the 3:00 mark. Game still tied 2-2 as the proceedings tense up a bit.

4:28 – “Last minute of play in the period,” intones the PA man as Gonchar is offside entering the Isles’ zone.

4:29 – Streit gets bottled up by Fedetenko in his own end, and the New York defenseman elects to skate behind his net and play for overtime. Pittsburgh 2, Islanders 2 after 60 minutes of play.

4:31 – Overtime begins and we skate four-on-four. Whitney is stoned as he shoots during a two-on-one. Tremendous chance to end it but McDonald comes up huge.

4:34 – Campoli’s drive is gloved by Fleury in traffic. 2:48 to go in OT.

4:36 – Great end-to-end play as time ticks under a minute until the shootout. Crosby’s high shot is shouldered by McDonald expertly.

4:38 – Park’s final thrust to the Penguins’ zone is fended off by Letang. The puck slides into the corner harmlessly and we will head to the shootout to break this tie. Fantastic action in overtime. Anyone for playing four-on-four all the time? Just a thought.

4:40 – Islanders will shoot first. Nielsen versus Fleury. He turns it to the backhand and scores from right on top of Fleury. Nice goal.

4:41 – Sykora against McDonald. He comes in wide, hesitates and blasts a slapper top shelf to tie it! That’s a new one from Petr Gun. Good to see him trying new things.

4:42 – Tambellini elects to take a wrister from 25 feet and blows it by Flower. He surprised the Penguins netminder there by shooting a full second before most players do.

4:43 – Malkin gets the call from Dan Bylsma. He loses the puck while stickhandling, recovers briefly, then tosses a backhand flip wide. He had McDonald beat, but he got a little flustered and rushed the shot after mishandling.

4:45 – Okposo now has a chance to end it. He glides in slowly and attempts to pull it with him as he shifts toward the left corner, a la Pavel Datsyuk. He’s scored on this move before, but this time he fumbles it and never gets a shot away. That move will either look great or terrible, depending on the execution. Kudos for trying it, though.

4:47 – Crosby has the game on his stick, as Mike Emrick would say; last chance to extend the shootout. He dekes a few times in the low slot, appears to have McDonald beat, but the goalie keeps his right pad down and turns away Sid’s forehand. Crosby could stand to get more inventive. I’ll cut him some slack because he’s fighting the flu, but I expect a little more in a one-on-one situation. Final score: New York 3, Pittsburgh 2 in the shootout.

Postgame – The Penguins earn a crucial point in the standings and are now four points behind the two clubs tied for seventh place, Florida and Buffalo. The Hurricanes stay one point ahead, with 60, and remain in ninth position. 24 games to play, and the Penguins probably have to win 15 or 16 of them.

All in all, it was a fairly good effort by the Pens in Dan Bylsma’s first game behind the bench. I saw improvement defensively, even though both goals were scored from within ten feet of the goal. It would’ve been classic if Pittsburgh walked away from Nassau with two points, but they’re not about to get too upset over a shootout loss at this point. A few more of those this season and they’d be in playoff position.

Next game: At the Igloo vs. slumping Montreal Thursday night. 7:38 p.m. faceoff. They just get bigger from here.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Polish Prodigy Podcast #11

Fiancee Jillian makes her much-anticipated return to the PPP as Wife Jillian for the first time. Hear what she has to say about my rebirth as a Steelers fan this season, as well as the state of the Pittsbugh Penguins and the approaching spectre of MLB Spring Training.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Polish Prodigy Podcast #10

Pittsburgh is Six-Burgh! The Steelers are champions of football again, courtesy of their topsy-turvy, thrilling 27-23 Super Bowl victory over the very game Arizona Cardinals.

Also, Rafa and Fed duel Down Under for the year's first Grand Slam and the Penguins head into their final 30 games outside of playoff position. 10 is a perfect number, and so is this podcast...riiiight.

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